I am not going to beat around the bush, constipation can ruin your mood and your day. Your stomach hurts, you may have gas or bloating, and you just generally feel pent up. When constipation becomes chronic, something you struggle with on a regular basis, it can really impact your whole life. Sure, taking a laxative every time you get constipated is a possibility, but most are so harsh. They also just seem to resolve the problem temporarily and certainly don’t feel great when they do work. A long-term natural solution to help prevent constipation in the first place is obviously more desirable. I know how frustrating and painful it can be, so here are some of my tried and true diet approaches to finding some relief and hopefully keep things moving smoothly permanently.
3 diet approaches to relieve constipation
My primary recommendation as a Registered Dietitian with a whole food approach is to focus first on diet changes. These 3 things are the first approach to getting things moving.
The reason I love a whole foods way of relieving constipation is because with a real, whole food diet it is super easy to get plenty of an ingredient that is incredible for digestive health: fiber! Fiber is a carbohydrate that makes up the structural part of plants. It helps plants stand up straight and grow tall. Even though fiber is a carbohydrate, we don’t have the enzymes to break it down and digest it, therefore it has no calories for us. Since we can’t digest it, it remains in the digestive tract, bulking up our stool. The bulk from the fiber encourages the muscles of the digestive tract to squeeze, moving things along. Gravity also helps push things through a little faster, helping relieve constipation.
The goal for fiber intake is between 25-35 grams per day for most adults. There isn’t an upper limit on fiber, unless it gives you gas or bloating after eating too much. If you currently have a low fiber diet, you want to increase high fiber foods slowly because they can cause digestive issues if you are not used to them.
Which foods have fiber?
The best sources of fiber are whole, unprocessed plant foods. These are always preferred over fiber supplements or foods with artificially added fiber.
Beans and legumes are a great source of fiber, with many varieties having over 10 grams per cup! Some of the highest in fiber are: lima beans, split peas, lentils, and black beans.
All vegetables contain some fiber, but some of the highest are: artichokes, parsnips, collard greens, Brussel sprouts, kale, and broccoli. If a vegetable has an edible skin, be sure to eat the skin because it is usually highest in fiber. Click here to find 10 ways to add veggies to your diet.
Many fruits are high in fiber, particularly those that have an edible skin like apples, pears, or peaches. Raspberries are also high in fiber with 8 grams per cup.
The recommendation is 9 servings (1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked equals 1 serving) of vegetables and fruit per day. While this may sound like a lofty goal, it can give you an amount to get started and moving toward. Start slow and gradually increase.
Nuts and seeds are a great source of fiber and they make an incredible snack. Munch on almonds, pistachios, pecans, and chia seeds.
Psyllium, flax, hemp seeds
Psyllium is a type of fiber derived from a plant called Plantago ovata and is commonly used as a fiber additive in various foods. It can be added to water, since it dissolves, to help get in a bit of extra fiber. Flax and hemp seeds can be added to smoothies, salads, soups or other dishes for a fiber boost.
When you begin to eat more fiber, you need to be sure to drink plenty of water. In order for the bulk created by fiber to move through smoothly, it needs to be well hydrated. Think of the fluids as a way to lubricate the intestines to keep things moving.
How much water to drink? About half your body weight in ounces, is critical if you are going to up your fiber intake. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you will aim for 75 ounces of water; if you weigh 180 pounds, shoot for 90 ounces. If water is difficult for you to drink, include sparkling water, herbal teas, or broth to help hydrate.
Improve Gut Flora
One of the causes of constipation and many other digestive discomforts, may be related to an imbalance in the flora of the gut. By some estimations, our digestive tract contains up to 100 trillion bacteria and bacteria cells actually outnumber human cells in our body. These bacteria play several important roles, from helping us digest certain vitamins to preventing harmful bugs from making us sick. Additionally, much of the bulk in our stools, other than fiber, is actually dead bacteria. Not having enough bacteria can cause constipation as well as having an imbalance of the wrong type.
How does the gut bacteria get out of balance? Certain strains of gut bacteria can be killed off due to too much stress, poor diets, infections, or excessive antibiotic use. In order to correct constipation, the gut flora needs to be restored. A great way to achieve this goal is to include more fermented foods in your diet. Fermented foods contain both pre- and probiotics. These foods naturally contain healthy bacteria (probiotics) which are the strains you want more of in your gut. But, fermented foods also have prebiotics which is the fiber the bacteria love to eat. As if that wasn’t enough, fermented foods also have a higher nutritional value because the bacteria help release some additional vitamins.
A few fermented foods that help constipation are:
- Fermented pickles
- Fermented vegetables
Make sure your fermented foods are in their raw state, unpasteurized (it will say this on the label) and are actually fermented. For example, most pickles in the grocery store are not fermented, only soaked in vinegar. A good tip is to look for foods that are unpasteurized and refrigerated, as most fermented foods are not shelf-stable. Pick one or two of your favorites and try to eat little every day.
There are also ways to make fermented foods at home if you are feeling more ambitious. As a whole foods dietitian, I always prefer you add real food to your diet over supplements, therefore I recommend starting with fermented foods before trying a probiotic supplement.
By adding whole food sources of fiber to your diet, drinking more water, and eating more fermented foods these are the first steps to relieving constipation naturally.Once the diet has been improved, then you can move on to the next steps.